Written and directed by the Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis is a relatable and heartbreaking tale starring an incredible Oscar Isaac in the title role.
Oscar Isaac is on quite the run as of late: with Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter recently hitting theaters and Scenes from a Marriage having just been released on HBO, the actor has been busy this year. With that in mind, why not take a look at his breakthrough role in one of the most acclaimed films of the 2010s? Believe it or not, I hadn’t seen 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis, despite being a fan of Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan, prior to watching it for this review. I’m honestly kicking myself for that now, because I absolutely loved this film.
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis takes place in 1961 and follows one week in the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a folk singer. Llewyn is struggling to achieve any sort of success in the music business. As he attempts to salvage what little of a career he has, Llewyn must also keep his personal life on track, which is also easier said than done.
Right off the bat, Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn Davis entrances you with his rugged look, and smooth, vulnerable singing voice. Isaac has played music for most of his life (he was even in a ska-punk band at one point), and it shows onscreen. Casting an actor to play a musician can be such a tricky process, but, in this case, since the film revolves around Llewyn Davis, it’s crucial. If the Coen Brothers had miscast the lead role, Inside Llewyn Davis wouldn’t have worked in the slightest. They said as much in a Rolling Stone article, calling the project “unfilmable” before they met Isaac. The duo knew they needed to find a talented actor who could sing, play guitar, and deliver comedic scenes. I would have to agree with them: it would’ve been unfilmable; the character of Llewyn is so complex that even one misstep in the casting process could have ruined the film. Thankfully, Oscar Isaac was cast, and he gives a masterful performance as Llewyn Davis.
Despite playing this character who is very flawed, isolated and distant, Isaac’s charisma still works its way through. His performance, along with the story, will have you seeing yourself in Llewyn one minute and wishing someone would punch him in the face the next. It’s relatable and heartbreaking, watching what this character goes through. Isaac’s line delivery is perfect for this black comedy, and his jokes are delivered with a deadpan voice and straight face throughout: in fact, Llewyn rarely even cracks a smile during the film’s runtime. Llewyn makes light of certain situations, and this leaves the audience constantly questioning whether they should laugh, feel uncomfortable, or both. When you consider all the elements that the Coen Brothers searched for in a lead actor, it makes you realize that this is Isaac’s most powerful performance to date. He’s so dedicated to every aspect of the character, singing and playing guitar throughout, cracking these dark jokes, and he has enough acting ability to play this flawed individual while also maintaining some charisma. Without this character best performance from Oscar Isaac, I’m not certain that Llewyn Davis and his story would have been able to strike such a strong cord with audiences. The character and his story work in tandem with each other, and if the actor bringing Llewyn to life hadn’t been compelling, why would anyone have cared about his journey or related to it?
What’s fascinating about Inside Llewyn Davis and its title character is the journey. Llewyn goes on this odyssey as he tries to make it in the music business. Whether you’re a musician or not, you’ll likely know something about that. We’re all going on this journey called life, trying to make something of ourselves in whatever way we can, and the Coen Brothers have crafted a story that feels almost too real. Llewyn is a man going through his rare ups and more frequent downs, which have left him isolated, and depressed. Somehow, Isaac’s character manages to keep going, like any person does on a daily basis. Honestly, I wouldn’t call Llewyn likable, but we end up liking him because we can relate to him and his story. That relatability keeps us invested, wondering what is going to end up happening to him on his journey, and said journey is about as unpredictable as it gets, much like life itself.
Inside Llewyn Davis has a bleak, nearly nonexistent color palette, which I find fascinating. This gives the film an old school film vibe and creates an atmosphere that is perfect for a character study like this. It makes you focus even more on the excellent story unfolding because there isn’t anything else competing for your attention. You aren’t focused on the scenery or the clothing: the audience’s focus is squarely on Llewyn, his story, and his music, and that’s exactly where it should be.
Speaking of the music, all of it was performed live. Not only did Oscar Isaac perform as Llewyn, but the entire cast also sung their songs live. That’s yet another thing that adds to the authenticity of the story, given that music is at the center of it. The singing is real, but it’s also quite good, rather than hit or miss in the way that Les Misérables (2012) was. Isaac and Carey Mulligan are the standouts among the actors who sing during the duration of the film. They both have a quality singing voice that fits their respective folk songs. The reason that the music is top notch has to be that the Coen Brothers took great care to cast the right actors for this sort of film. Case in point, Justin Timberlake, a real-life musician, plays Jim Berkey and also sings. T Bone Burnett (a legendary record producer who was also guitarist for Bob Dylan during the 1970’s), Joel and Ethan Coen, Justin Timberlake, Marcus Mumford (of Mumford & Sons), and Oscar Isaac all helped to produce the soundtrack and their work pays off. The music of Inside Llewyn Davis is a constant highlight and will definitely take you back to the film’s setting of 1961.
The ensemble of Inside Llewyn Davis is truly impressive, as to be expected in a Coen Brothers film. You’ve got Isaac, Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake, and each of them do fantastic work. Isaac’s future Star Wars co-star Adam Driver even makes a brief but memorable appearance as Al Cody, a fellow musician who collaborates with Llewyn and Jim Berkey on a song. Mulligan, who plays Jean Berkey, wife of Timberlake’s character, a folk musician, and Llewyn’s former lover, comes closest among the ensemble to stealing the film from Isaac with her performance.
Not only does she share the majority of her scenes with Isaac’s Llewyn, but Jean is practically the audience surrogate character. She, too, relates to Llewyn, and has faith in his ability to achieve his dream, but he constantly makes her want to punch him. With that in mind, Mulligan runs quite the emotional gambit, and we completely understand why. Jean is kind, despite her clear dislike of Llewyn, that is, until she can’t take it anymore. Even after she lets him have it, delivering a scathing rant on Llewyn and his overlarge ego, she still shows him kindness later in the film. Mulligan’s subtle performance perfectly captures the love/hate relationship that both Jean and the audience have with Llewyn.
That is a stark contrast to John Goodman’s Roland Turner, a jazz musician that Llewyn Davis meets on his journey who lets Isaac’s character have it from the minute they first meet, knocking him down several pegs. Goodman’s performance is cold, calculated, and cruelly hilarious. One could say that Turner represents reality completely smacking Llewyn in the face. Despite that, Oscar Isaac’s protagonist manages to get up and keep going, with help from people that do believe in him, like Jean, along the way. Each member of the ensemble plays a role in the story, but Jean and Roland’s impact on Llewyn, and the performances of Mulligan and Goodman, ultimately makes them the most interesting members who aren’t Oscar Isaac.
Inside Llewyn Davis features a relatable and heartbreaking story, great music, a solid ensemble, and a performance for the ages by Oscar Isaac in the title role. The film is another gem from the Coen Brothers that will leave you feeling something, no matter how young or old you may be. That’s because, at some point or another, we were all Llewyn Davis, making our way through life, and chasing a dream.
Inside Llewyn Davis was released on December 6, 2013.